Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Difficulties Making Friends

If you haven’t figured it out from my previous posts, making friends here has been difficult for Sarah and me. I’m not sure how much of that is just our perception—perhaps everyone finds that it takes a long time to make friends when they move. Or, maybe the difference is so obvious to us because we did have so many friends in West Michigan.

However, being the astute observer of cultural behaviours that I am, I have been making mental notes of some of the differences between Canadians and Americans that I’ve noticed. I also realize that even with in the United States, there are major cultural differences from region to region, but saying that, I don’t know if I would have encountered as many differences if I would have moved five hours in any direction from Grand Rapids within the US. Much has been written and observed regarding the cultural and behavioural nuances between Canadians and Americans, and I’ve read as much on this as I’ve had time to over the past five years. But, my experiences and my own observations, though much similar to what I’d read, reflect my day-to-day reality.

And, yes, I know I’m generalizing, but this is my experience. If I’m experiencing something that isn’t the norm, it’s still what I’ve encountered.

In the Midwestern United States, and particularly where I’m from, people go out of their way to make visitors and newcomers feel welcomed (especially if those visitors and newcomers are white and Christian.) It’s almost a kind of customer-service mentality that carries on throughout people’s personal lives.

What do I mean by a “customer-service” mentality? Well, here’s an example. If I go to a hardware store in West Michigan and ask the store clerk for help finding something to repair my door, that clerk will show me where every possible tool and remedy is located, tell me what has worked for her in the past, ask me questions to determine the root cause of the problem, and stop just short of volunteering to come to my house to help me fix it. If the store did not have exactly what I needed, she would 1) call other store locations to see if they have what I need, 2) offer to special order it for me, or 3) give me a detailed list of other stores in the area to check, along with detailed directions and possibly maps. In the same situation in Canada, the store clerk would tell me what aisle to look in, and if the store didn’t have what I needed, I would get a “sorrey.”

In the Midwest, people will go out of their way to help you. And, if you actually ask for help, they will go even further out of their way to help you. In Canada, the response is a little more limited. I’m used to not having to ask for help to get it. Here, you need to make your needs clear and ask for help explicitly, and even then, the response you get will be only exactly what you asked for.

Does this mean Canadians are less caring or less helpful? Certainly not. It appears to me to just be a different mindset. Canadians keep their distance because they don’t want to seem too overbearing or intrusive. Canadians maintain a degree of formality in their interactions that conforms to their paradigm of politeness. Canadians as a whole are reluctant to interfere without being asked, and even if they are asked, they try to help without risking the possibility of being perceived as meddlers. You only need to look at the Canadian and the US foreign policies to note this differentiation—and that mentality is exhibited in individuals, as well.

I can remember times, when I lived in Michigan, when someone new started at work or moved into the neighbourhood. Everyone would go to great lengths to learn about this person and where he was from and why he had moved homes or jobs. If he was from a different state, the onslaught of questions from curious minds would be relentless. If he was from a different country, the degree of interest in this new person would be exponentially greater (even if he was from Canada). One only has to ask Sarah about her experience with Midwesterners when she moved to Michigan from England to confirm this.

I was in disbelief in the lack of apparent interest shown to my situation when I moved to Ontario. Usually the questions I got from new co-workers or soccer or hockey teammates were limited to “What state are you from?” and “Where do you live now?” Once, much to my surprised, I was asked, “So why did you move to Canada?” I replied, “Well, my spouse was having visa problems in the US.” My response was met with silence. No follow-up questions, no comments.

Midwesterners show they are interested in you by asking you questions. They want to know about your family, where you’re from, what sports you play, where you go to church, what medications you take, etc. They want you to know that they want to get to know you as a person. These questions demonstrate this. Midwesterners aren’t afraid to ask anything. Sarah can tell some pretty funny stories about questions she was asked when she moved to the US. “Is Nottingham a real place?” and “Have you ever met the queen?” are just a couple of examples.

Canadians, on the other hand, are likely just as interested, but are very conscious of appearing nosy. Once you get to know people, they will gradually start asking you more personal questions. But, they feel that it is impolite to interrogate someone they don’t know. So, to a Midwesterner like me, used to questions as a show of care and interest, I felt that the Canadians did not care to get to know me. Likewise, a Canadian moving to the Midwest might feel intimidated and badgered by the barrage of questions.

Conversely, Canadians are less willing to share information about themselves with those they don’t know very well. You can ask Midwesterners almost anything personal, and they will answer your question and add their life histories. I have found that I really have to ask a lot of pointed questions to people I meet to learn anything about them here, but I also have to be especially aware of irritating them by appearing too nosy. To Midwesterners, sharing information about yourself provides a way of finding common ground. To Canadians, sharing knowledge about yourself is not only inappropriate and breaches the level of formality they wish to maintain, but it makes them feel exposed and vulnerable.

Where this difference in self-disclosure is most evident is in the sharing of personal health information. Most Midwesterners will tell you, at great length, about their and their family members’ medical histories, surgeries, emergencies, medications, allergies, etc. I think this is yet another way that they are trying to give information that allows them to eventually find common ground with others. Go through a lengthy enough list of medical conditions, and the person you’re talking to is bound to eventually have experienced the same malady. The Canadians couldn’t be more opposite in their approach to sharing the personal health history. Shortly after I started at my job here in Canada, a co-worker was telling me how she had recently had an extended time off work. I asked if she had been on vacation. She replied that, no, she had been in the hospital for a major surgery. I waited for her to continue, expecting all the gory details. All that followed was silence. I felt the urge to ask her what the surgery was for, but I could tell that she didn’t want to reveal the details. So, the conversation ended there. Had this occurred in the Midwest, I wouldn’t have had to ask to get the details. And, if I didn’t ask any follow-up questions, it would be seen as though I wasn’t interested in the person’s struggles.

If I am speaking with a Canadian and start talking about any health issue I have, for example, how I broke my fingers two years ago, as soon as I give any information other than the fact that they were broken, I can sense their discomfort—they’ll shift their eyes away from me and look like they are thinking of a way to change the subject.

Okay, so even some Midwesterners don’t like to talk about their health conditions. Granted. But, here’s another example of the Canadian reluctance to self-disclose. I was speaking with a co-worker who was telling me about his mother’s commute to work. I said, “So, what does your mom do for a living?” You would have thought I asked him to confess his sins. His face turned bright red and he looked at the floor and shifted uncomfortably in his seat before saying, “She works” in a tone that said “none of your business.” In my mind, I was trying to show interest and maybe even find a common link between him and me. His response to my question made me wonder if his mother was a lady of the night. Then I remembered that he was just acting Canadian.

Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. Sarah and I had been living here less than two months. Everyone we knew from work, hockey, and soccer knew that we were new here and had no family here. Many people asked us what we were doing for the holiday. We told them that we weren’t doing anything. Had we been new to the US at US Thanksgiving, we would have had more invitations to a holiday get-together than we could believe. We didn’t have a single offer here. I wasn’t hurt or offended, I just realized it was a difference.

Of course, it’s important to point out that when Midwesterners ask you about your personal life, they may just be feigning interest. I have certainly experienced my share of people, especially colleagues in management, who pretended to be interested in me for appearance’s sake. The majority of the time, the interest shown by Midwesterners is genuine. What I do know is that if a Canadian asks you about your personal life, most likely, they really are interested.

Hopefully the observations and experiences I’ve shared here have helped to explain why Sarah and I have had such a difficult time making friends. A couple of weeks ago, one of our teammates from hockey invited us over to her house for dinner. When I got her e-mail invitation, I cried. I still don’t know why I cried. Was it because I was so happy that someone had finally reached out to us? Or was it because I realized how much my social situation had changed in that I had been here in Canada for three months with no real friends?

At this point, things are changing gradually. We feel a lot closer to many of our soccer and hockey teammates. Part of the problem may be our age. The fact that we’re in our thirties means that most other people our age are in the midst of child-rearing and have all their time consumed with family responsibilities that Sarah and I don’t have.

All I can hope is that a few months from now, I’ll be writing a blog entry about Sarah’s and my booming social lives.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue my cultural observations.

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